In the aftermath of the NDP’s massive collapse in last fall’s federal election, I was one of countless observers who fully expected Thomas “Tom” Mulcair to step down as party leader.
And yet, to this day, Mulcair remains. He has faced minimal challenge from within his party (as far as I know, Ontario MPP Cheri DiNovo is alone among elected NDP officials in calling for Mulcair to resign) and has received relatively deferential treatment at the hands of the press.
I must admit that I was baffled by this. I remember back in 2011 when then-Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff chose not to resign on election night despite the historic drubbing which the Liberal Party had received, and the hounding he got in the press in the immediate aftermath of that decision. Granted, Ignatieff did fail to win his own seat, and his party had never suffered the ignominy of a third-place finish before. But given where Mulcair & Co started at the outset of #elxn42 – they were polling in majority territory in August, something Ignatieff never dreamed of! – the scale and scope of their defeat was comparably yuge.
And yet Mulcair remains.
To be honest, it’s not my habit to pick on losers and third-rate politicians. But Mulcair is something else. Mulcair very nearly got the NDP into government on the most right-wing platform the party has ever run with, a platform for which he still has not apologized. In this sense, he’s a type case of the global Left today – more calculating than caring, more attentive to the polls than the people, willing to sacrifice every principle for power. And for this he deserves every excoriating diatribe, every nasty comments section rant, every vote of no confidence that he gets.
So here’s my two cents.
A few days back, Mulcair spoke to the CBC’s Chris Hall in his most detailed analysis of the failed NDP campaign to date, and made the unsurprising argument that it wasn’t his fault, really.
Oh, to be sure, he paid lip service to the notion that as leader he accepts full responsibility etc., but having ensured he said those magic words, he felt free to cast the blame around widely. It was the fault of, variously, racist Quebeckers, his advisors, and the progressive people of Canada who just didn’t take the time to read the NDP’s platform and comprehend how progressive it actually was.
But seriously, though – let’s take a look at some of the bullshit Mulcair spouted to the CBC to justify his party’s massive collapse:
“[The niqab] hurt us terribly. It was measured. I can share with you that the polling we did showed we dropped over 20 points in 48 hours here in Quebec because of the strong stand I took on the niqab,” Mulcair said…
“There was a heavy price to pay. A lot of Quebecers put it on the level of women’s rights and they saw the niqab as a symbol of oppression of women. And what we didn’t communicate was, ‘OK that’s an understandable position, but once the courts have ruled in defence of people’s rights, you have to respect that.’
“And I think that perhaps that was something that we had to have done a bit better. But it was so emotional. That’s something that I have to change — my answers tend to be lawyer-like and a little bit too rational in the face of a very emotional debate,” Mulcair said.
Of course, Mulcair would love the NDP’s principled stance on the niqab to be the scapegoat for the party’s cratering support. It’s an explanation which favours him – he was just taking the principled, multi-cultural stand, after all, and moreover a stance which the courts have thoroughly endorsed! Surely nobody could fault him for taking such a position! Of course he could have explained his platform a little better – could have been less lawyerlike and more friendly, bad Tom, bad! – but at the end of the day, what’s to be done?
This is a situation in which Mulcair can portray himself as having done The Right Thing and then suffering on account of it. And who among the NDP faithful could hold him responsible for that? (Note that he’s extremely careful to not accuse Quebec’s voters of overt Islamophobic racism; instead, he patronizingly suggests that he should have explained his not-exactly-complicated position more clearly, thereby implying that they are instead kind of dense.)
But the fact of the matter is that blaming the niqab for the NDP’s loss is nonsense. I mean, complete and total garbage.
Look, I’m not privy to internal NDP polling, and I don’t know for sure what their numbers people told them happened. But the publicly available numbers tell an entirely different story:
[The niqab explanation] is transparently false. First of all, a close reading of the data shows that the party’s numbers were slipping several days before the issue shot to prominence in the first of the two French-language debates.
Now, remember: at the time, the polls were showing a tight three-way race, with the parties trading off on the lead. According to Eric Grenier’s poll aggregations, however, the NDP had already fallen into third place (albeit a very close third, within the margin of error) by September 21, three days prior to the first French-language debate on September 24, and they were doomed to remain in third for the duration of the campaign. It was a far cry from the crushing lead they had a month prior, on August 24, when they were polling in majority territory at 37.5%.
The NDP had lost the support of many, many people prior to the niqab becoming a major campaign issue. They had slipped from a commanding first to a tenacious third in the polls, and while their slippage did continue after the issue of niqabs dominated the headlines for a while, it’s far from clear, looking at the polling data, that the issue had anything to do with their sagging numbers.
This is particularly true when we look at what happened to the NDP’s Quebec seats. Going into the election, they held 53 ridings in la belle province; after election night, they held a mere 16. The Conservatives gained five seats and the Bloq Quebecois gained six, while the Liberals gained a staggering thirty-three seats. (Seven seats were new for this election). In other words, the NDP lost less than a few seats to parties with a hardline conservative stance on niqabs, and a whole lot to a party which vigorously espoused an identical position on the issue.
What’s more, the NDP’s losses in Quebec are only part of the story. They lost every single seat in the Greater Toronto Area, for instance. Olivia Chow couldn’t win. Hell, they lost Jack Layton’s old seat. Regardless of what happened to their numbers in Quebec after the niqab issue flared up in a French-language debate, why did the party fare so terribly in Toronto? Why did it lose seats in Ottawa and the Maritimes?
Perhaps it had something to do with the whole balanced-budget debacle, which again Mulcair tried to spin for maximum advantage in his CBC interview:
The party’s big ticket promises, namely $15 a day daycare and a national pharmacare program, were overshadowed by its commitment to balance the books, Mulcair said.
Long-time party activists have argued that his steadfast commitment to balancing the books, despite worsening economic conditions, hurt the party among its social democratic base and those voters looking for dramatic change.
“When we talk about a social democratic vision — where we’re going to remove income inequality in our society and do better on basic issues around poverty — then we have to say where the money is coming from, and we had that, but … it was lost because of the debate over balanced budgets,” Mulcair said.
What Mulcair fails to mention here – what’s key to this whole discussion – is that the NDP’s balanced budget platform was his idea. He claimed eager ownership of it in an interview with the CBC’s Rosemary Barton shortly before the election, when he was still delusionally insisting that his party could still win a majority, dammit. And even now, he’s not willing to repudiate the foolish notion that a balanced budget is an inherent good in and of itself – something that should provide further fuel to those who argue that the man is a closet Conservative. (Hell, find me another social democrat who’s on record giving a speech praising the legacy of Margaret Thatcher.)
The simple truth of the matter is that the NDP’s balanced budget commitment wouldn’t have survived three months in power. Trudeau’s Liberals have already been forced to abandon their pledge of a mere $10 billion in deficit spending this year, and it turns out the Conservative Party’s vaunted budgetary surplus wasn’t all it was cracked up to be anyway. It also turns out that voters don’t much care about ten billion dollars one way or another, seeing as they elected a party promising to spend more than they took in without any compunctions.
This was one of the signature issues of the campaign. With voters eagerly looking for a party to bring change after a torturous decade under the HarperCons, Mulcair’s decision to align himself with Conservative budgetary ideology gave the Liberals a golden opportunity to differentiate themselves, one which Justin Trudeau seized. He damned Mulcair for promising to “balance Stephen Harper’s budget”, a line which rang so true that it stuck, forever associating the pair in the minds of those who heard it. (It’s a given at this point that nobody’s associating Mulcair with “removing income inequality” – I didn’t hear a single word from him on that subject over the course of the entire campaign!)
As for Mulcair blaming the issue for somehow magically overshadowing the NDP’s priorities, well, that’s bad campaigning for ya, innit? “[Our social democratic vision] was lost because of the debate over balanced budgets” – I guess it wasn’t a very compelling vision, then?
I mean really. Pharmacare? Do you remember hearing about pharmacare during the campaign? I do, but only because of this:
Speaking in Regina, Mulcair announced a stunning new platform for the NDP – a national pharmacare program. The announcement was met with immediate skepticism by the political press, mostly because the amount of money the party was offering up and the amount needed to meaningfully address the issue are miles apart.
Global was so skeptical, they put it in their headline: Mulcair announces universal pharmacare program – how will he pay for it? […]
Which is not to piss on the idea of national coverage for prescription medication. I think that’d be great. I also think the NDP hasn’t got an iota of credibility on this. Launching such a major platform with such a piddling dollar amount attached this late in the campaign smacks of desperation, an urgent desire to somehow differentiate themselves from the Liberals and pull out of this intense three-way tie.
After that, I can’t recall it surfacing in any meaningful way again. But as for balanced budgets, it seems to me that Mulcair wouldn’t shut up about them.
Mulcair is engaging in some serious after-the-fact rationalizations of his behaviour. In retrospect, I’m sure he thinks it all makes sense – but even at the time, there was a massive chorus of critics who were happy to point out that it was actually bollocks. He ran a campaign that was far too cautious, too timid, too middle-of-the-road, too uninspiring, too damn right-wing, for him to be able to succeed as a progressive change candidate, and he missed both his and the party’s best chance ever at winning an election. He failed, miserably, and for reasons that were largely within his control.
Does he deserve a second chance? I’m not a member of the NDP, so I don’t get a vote. I know they’re a party with a long history of forgiving their loser let-down leaders and giving undeserved second chances, and really, the choice is ultimately theirs.
But they need to ask themselves whether they really want to reward Mulcair for running a campaign entirely unworthy of the party’s legacy, for taking an historic opportunity and squandering it, for pushing the most right-wing platform the social democratic party has ever run on, and for afterwards doing his damndest to make it seem like it could’ve happened to anybody, really.
Thomas Mulcair is full of shit on this issue. His attempts to redeem his reputation from the ashes of the 2015 election deserve to be widely ridiculed and thoroughly debunked. In my opinion, if the NDP truly wants to move forward from this debacle and return to their roots as a social democratic party, then Mulcair ought to go.